Sunday, December 11, 2011

Civilization at its best?

Some of you might already know that Macau is a place that is special to me.
Macau, an sort-of-island (as it is so attached to the mainland) is located one hour away from Hong Kong and is like Hong Kong a so-called "Special Administrative Zone" of China. The place has been in Portuguese hands since the 16h century (although the Dutch have repeatedly trying to conquer it), but has been handed over to back to the People's Republic in 1999.

Macau is not only a special place to me personally, but in general it is considered special in this region, because it has legalized gambling to such a certain extend, that it has influenced the area tremendously. Besides that, it is a tax haven for offshore companies and inhabitants, and there are no foreign currency controls such as in China. Investors are also heavily stimulated by the government to invest in Macau, partly due to the eased tax-policies.

A glimpse of Macau at night. Casino neon lights
I have only been in Macau since the beginning of this year, but if you look into the history of this place, you can understand that the inhabitants have experienced a huge transition. Since the handover in 1999, the place has seen an annual economic growth of 13%. While before, the main income was only generated by trading and local activities such as fishing, nowadays the biggest income comes from tourism, and especially the gambling industry. In 2006 Macau overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenue with 23 Billion US$, but this year they expect that number to be 5 times higher.

When I walk through Macau, I have mixed feelings about the place. The casino's, some of the biggest in the world, are enormous and endless and (for a Dutch guy) almost beyond imagination. Let me give some examples.

The Venetian Resort, over 3000 hotel rooms, casino and
When you enter The Venetian (a copy of Venice), you can walk for an hour through the shopping malls in Venice style streets, with canals and even the same venetian boats (with opera-singing boatmen). The ceiling is painted like a cloudy sky and constantly changes light so you won't feel tired. There is more than 51000 square meter of casino floorspace, filled with endless rows of slot machines, poker tables, cashiers and ATM machines. Besides that, they have an hotel inside the building with 3000 rooms.

The Galaxy (which has just been opened this year) features an enormous entrance with a huge hall where you have quarterly fountain shows, marmer floors, toilets, and LV, Gucci and Rolex stores everywhere you look. There are two hotels inside, offering a total of 2200 rooms, and an enormous swimming pool on top of the building.

The canals inside the Venetian
Some day when I was visiting the Venetian for the first time, I literally got lost as it is such a huge complex. I was looking for the exit for almost half an hour, walking around in the Venetian streets, the gambling halls and food courts, until I finally managed to escape to the right place. My god!

One thing that amazes me in Macau, is how the local people deal with the transformation that is going  on. As western people, like me, you have the idea that Asia is still a developing country, and that there are some rich people, but the majority has a far lower life standard than us. If you want to blow away this illusion, Macau is definitely the place to visit.

First of all, you cannot get a decent hotel room for under 120 euro during the weekend. Everything below that amount I would not even let my dog stay for the night. An average room in a decent hotel will cost you between 150 and 200 euro per night. The food and drinks in Casino's are far higher priced than most of the restaurants I know in The Netherlands, although you can have an excellent meal for a very good price when you take a step outside the casino's and go to the places where the locals eat.

Besides that, you will see so many expensive shops such as LV, Gucci, Hermes, and they are all fully occupied, sometimes even with waiting queues outside to have the rich Chinese orderly wait before they spend thousands of dollars. Expensive cars drive around in the city as it is normal to own a Ferrari or Maserati.

Besides luxury goods and expensive cars, there are lots of women where you can spend your earned gambling money on. You see advertisements everywhere to call prostitutes, they walk around in hotels looking for big money spenders, and for the insiders, there is even a place where you can take a seat, and watch them stroll by (and select one like it is a meat market). I happened to get this location from a friend of mine, and of course I had to take a visit just to see what is going on there.

The place where it all happens is an ordinary shopping mall, located next to the old Lisboa casino. Inside, on the main floor there is a long hall with shops, where dressed-up Chinese ladies with short skirts and high heels parade through the hall. Just install yourself there and take a look. The ladies will walk by, and if they see you are interested, they will smile at you, and the price negotiation process will start. (So I heard...)

You can see that money spending has its impact on the local citizens of Macau

But one thing that scares me is that this generation, so influenced by easy money, might destroy itself in the end. Most of the Casino licenses end around 2020, and what if China decides not to renew them? What if China decides Macau will no longer be a tax haven? What will happen to the economy that nowadays is mostly based on the entertainment industry? What happens when the majority of the young generation cares only about easy money, and does not have any significant degree when all the Hong Kong and Chinese graduates will compete with the same scarce amount of jobs?

Therefore I sometimes think that Macau might show us an example of the end of a civilization.

When there is nothing left to do than Gambling, Drinking, spending money on luxury goods you don't need, it means that life is pretty useless.

Or am I wrong? .. Perhaps

After all, there is also a bright side. The casinos and all the yearly visitors brought a huge improvement in government earnings, and I believe that in general everybody in Macau is now better off than before.

The Government spends a lot on health care improvement, tax reductions and other social programs, so that the majority of the people benefit. I also read that the life expectancy in Macau is the highest in the world!

Besides that, the old center of Macau, where you can see the old Portuguese style houses, will give everybody a warm feeling when visiting.

I leave the final conclusion up to you, but I think everybody will agree with me that Macau is certainly a unique place in Asia!

Definitely worth to visit!


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wind or no wind, the Dutch guy goes to work...

A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was still hot and humid in Hong Kong, my alarm woke me at the usual time of 7.00am. After taking a shower, having breakfast and all the other morning activities, I grabbed my laptop and went down with the elevator.

Walking out of the elevator and the building, entering the street I started to get an unusual feeling, that something was not entirely the same as every other day. Meanwhile, thinking about what could cause my unusual feeling, I walked down the road to the Hong Kong MTR (metro). It is about 8 minutes walk downhill along the road.

"What is wrong today?" Is it the weather? Mmm, not really. It was grey, yes, but it didn't rain, and there was a some wind coming from the other side of the hill, but nothing to be scared of.

"But what was it then?"

It was quite silent this day, something that never happens in Hong Kong. While walking further I noticed that there was really nobody on the street. Usually around this time, the street is full of businessmen going to work, grandmothers walking with the Filipino maids to bring the children to school, and lots of taxi's, cars and buses on the road to transport all those million of souls across the city. But today.. absolutely nothing. No people, no cars, buses. Even the security guards were nowhere to be found.

Even the MTR stations were totally emtpy,
unusual for the rush hour!
"Well I guess I am the only foreigner that doesn't have a free day today. Guess I must have missed something" I thought to myself, and continued my walk to the MTR station.

But when getting to the entrance of the metro, I noticed they had placed a sign near to the elevator:

"Typhoon level 8 is hoisted"

That explains it!

During my previous visits to Hong Kong I have experienced some smaller typhoons before, so I was aware of the typhoon level warning system that Hong Kong operates.

This system is in place since 1884 when the Hong Kong observatory began to monitor the tropical cyclones in the South China Sea.

The signals are classified between level 1 and 10 where level 1 means that a tropical cyclone is within 800 KM range, level 3 warns of strong winds, and level 8 up to 10 means very strong wind or a real typhoon with wind speeds up to 12 Beaufort.

When the warning level 8 or higher is issued, the city enters a complete blackout; all the public transportation stops, government institutions close, and highways will be closed or scaled down. Therefore, usually most companies will shut down their operations and send everybody home. People call it a lucky day, as they can go home and stay with the family. (Usually playing mahjong all day)

And this was the reason..Thank you!
Since this signal was issued in the early morning, everybody could stay inside and have an extra free day.
Unfortunately I didn't watch the news, and just went to work without understanding what was going on. Luckily I saw the sign at the MTR station!

Yes, of course it was windy outside, but being born in Holland, a country where I believe it is windy 300 days per year, the storm that was blowing over Hong Kong that day didn't really impress me.

But now I learned my lesson.. if there is any typhoon nearby, check the weather forecast on an hourly basis, like most Hong Kong people do, and who knows you might be lucky!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Election Day

Two weeks ago on November 6, the Hong Kong District Councils election was held in Hong Kong. In all 18 districts of Hong Kong, people could vote for selecting a council member to represent their district. For what I understand is that although there seems to be a democratic process for selecting a district council, these councils actually have little power and can only advise on topics like traffic related issues, or local services offered by the government. Nevertheless the elections seem to draw quite a lot of attention around the neighbourhood.

I happened to got to know about these elections a couple of months ago, when I was going back home after work. My apartment is about 8 minutes walk from the local MTR station, which (to me) does not seem to be that far. However, as most Hong Kong people have limited time, there are several minibuses driving between the MTR station and my building so that you never have to wait more than 5 minutes to take a bus to drive you home in no time. (It saves you about 3 minutes, isn't it amazing!)

Dr. King!
When I was walking to the minibus I noticed a man standing there, giving out folders with information. Next to him there also was a big poster with his face and his name, and some Chinese text.
Dr. King (that was his name according to the poster) saw me and immediately approached me and gave me one of his folders. He explained to me that he was running for the elections and asked me to please vote for him, as he did many good things for the neighborhood. For example, he told me that he was the person that got the air-fan (that blows some air in your face when you are waiting for the minibus) replaced as the old one was broken. I smiled, went on the bus and thought by myself that I would also run for the elections after such major achievement. Hell, why not running for president?

A couple of days later I had to go to work in the morning. When I exited my apartment and walked down to the MTR, I noticed that Dr. King had himself installed at a strategic point again, and gave out more folders. When I passed him he smiled and said "good morning, please vote for me", which he also said in Cantonese to the other people passing by.

The same happened the next day, and the day after, until some day, when I walked down again, I realized that Dr. King was not alone. Suddenly, another competitor had decided to join the daily process. He installed himself a little bit more up the road so people would pass him before they passed Dr. King, and he had one flag placed behind him that has his smiling photo, his name (Chan Kai Yuen) and the election logo. Whenever somebody passed him, he put on his (very well trained) smile, waived, and said "joohhsaahn" (which translates to Good Morning).

Chan Kai Yuen
All this seemed to make Dr. King a little bit uncomfortable. Although he held himself strong and gave a similar smile, I could tell that this wasn't his best day. The next day (on my usual route) they installed themselves again. However this time Dr. King probably woke up earlier and put himself on the same spot that Chan Kai Yuen had occupied the day before. Feeling confident in himself again, he had his usual calm smile and the good morning greeting.

However, Chan Kai Yuen was not being outsmarted yet. Probably expecting such a move, he brought with him 2 extra flags and put them behind him on the fence. Even though he was stationed lower down the road, he was still drawing more attention to himself with the big shiny green flags and his more than perfect smile on the photo.

A couple of days passed by, during which Dr. King and Chan Kai Yuen changed positions, bought more flags, until I noticed that they both began to hire assistants. First I noticed that Dr. King had recruited (I assume) his son, who was handing out folders. But Chan Kai Yuen followed with a whole bunch of helpers, with flags and folders which looked so professional that Dr. King could not fall behind, and used the same strategy.

After a couple of days of equal stability, (flags, assistants, folders, smiles, good morning's) I noticed that Dr. King was not at his usual place that morning. "Perhaps he was ill?" I thought, while walking to the shopping center in which the MTR is located. Then suddenly, after going down with the escalator, Dr. King appeared and with a big smile and even bigger confidence, waived everybody his good morning again. He did it! He outsmarted Chan Kai Yuen ultimately!

This tactic lasted for a couple of days, until Chan Kai Yuen did a counter attack and also stationed himself near the elevator, but on a different level so he could wave not only to the people going down, but also to the people leaving the MTR and going up the elevator. Smart move!

During the last days before the election, they changed positions frequently, and their smiles got even bigger. Chan Kai Yuen even bought an election belt, a green with gold belt hanging around his neck (similar to the one that Miss World has). More flags, more assistants, more folders, and bigger smiles.

The final day before the election I was working at home. Suddenly I heard a loud noise outside which sounded like a couple of African drums. *BANG* *BANG* *BANG*, repeatedly for minutes. I decided to ignore it until I got so annoyed that I looked out of the window. What I saw was the final trick of Chan Kai Yuen; he really did it well today. All his assistants were marching in the street, following a big drum at the start of the parade. They were having all the big flags and were waving to the (astonished) people on the street. Then finally I saw the master himself, dressed up and waving like a real winner. I thought to myself that this must be the final blow to his competitor. How is Dr. King ever going to beat this?? Impossible. The game is over, there is no way that this show could be matched.

And I was right. When I read the news the day after the election, I saw that Chan Kai has won the elections and now is the Elected member of the Eastern District Council Constituency of Kornhill. Even though I feel sorry for Dr. King, I think that Chan Kai Yuen deserves the honour.

I almost felt sad that the elections were over. I'd miss the generous smile of Dr. King and the smart moves of Chan Kai Yuen, now that they will not be there anymore in the morning. But how surprised I was that next day, when I came down the elevator, Chan Kai Yuen was back! Smiling more than ever, he was thanking the people for all their support.

And even though, for an outsider such as me looking at the spectacle that happened last weeks, I do appreciate this last action. It shows a true sign of respect!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Published interview with BlogExpat site

I recently have been interviewed by the BlogExpat site and today they have posted the article which references my "Being Dutch in Asia" Blog. You can read it at the link below. (if you find it interesting)

BlogExpat Interview: From The Netherlands to Hong Kong

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Culture Differences - My Personal Experience in Malaysia

Everyone that has lived or travelled in Europe knows that even though Europe is a reasonably small continent, so many different cultures exist next to each other. We have the Germans who are punctual and accurate, we have the Italians who are passionate and outgoing, we have the French who are Romantic, and so on and so on.

Although it seemed to me that these differences were very normal, it never occurred to me that in Asia you also have these kind of cultural differences until I lived and travelled here. One example of the differences became obvious to me when I travelled to Malaysia recently to manage an IT implementation project.
Kuala Lumpur
The project lasted for two weeks, and in the middle of the implementation, we encountered a serious problem with a new fiber-optic Internet line in our office. The result of the problem was that there was no connection possible between our Malaysia office and our worldwide network. We discovered the problem in the morning, just after arrival to the office and immediately called our IT business partner who was responsible for the line. They came reasonably quick, but after an hour of two doing troubleshooting, they said:

"OK, it's not easy to fix. Let us first have some lunch and then we will think about how to solve it".

At first I thought that I perhaps didn't hear his words correctly. Did he really want to have lunch now, while the office has no network, and leave the staff here being unable to work? But then I heard that everybody agreed, including the office management, so we went for a 1,5 hour lunch break, and had very tasty Malaysian food.

Still surprised about this action, I thought to myself that such a thing would have never happened in Hong Kong. For the average person in Hong Kong, time is considered to be most precious, and as there is not much free time besides work and sleep, people don't want to spend unnecessary time waiting for something. The same counts for companies as well. If there is a problem, it should be fixed as soon as possible.

The great Malaysian food we had while I was worrying
about the internet line.
For example; The average time that a Hong Kong person spends in a restaurant is about 30 minutes. If the food is not served within 5 minutes after ordering, people start to get annoyed.

Another example is when people are going up and down in a lift, they will press the "close door" button immediately after they enter. They don't have the time to wait for your "lazy" ass to walk in the elevator, so if you are not fast enough getting in, the door will be shut right before your nose and you have to wait for another one.

I have that experience, yes.. a 70 year old lady pushed so hard and quick on the button that I didn't stand a chance...and she looked at me from the other side of the door while it closed in front of me for the last few centimeters..

There are lots of other examples I can make, but I think I made my point, Hong Kong people are always busy, and they do not want to spend unnecessary time. (Which is not a bad thing by the way.) So when I informed our headquarters in Hong Kong that our network connection was broken, and that the whole crew, including our staff, decided to go on a lunch break first, you can imagine how the reaction was. (Luckily the team was able to fix the problems quickly when they returned from lunch.)

During my two week stay I discovered more of these acknowledging moments that the Malaysian culture is quite different from Hong Kong. The pace, the action, everything goes with a certain smoothness, that I have not experienced in Hong Kong, ever. Whatever happens, there is another day tomorrow. And luckily it's always summer in Malaysia!

For people that have not been here, I would say, you can compare it with the Greek doing a project for Germans... then I think you know what I mean..

However,  I must admit, there is a positive side about the way the Malaysian people take on their daily pace of life. They are so relaxed but also friendly and helpful as well. I guess they must have a lower amount of health problems related to stress too. So... I recommend any overworked HK expat or local to stay there a few weeks. You'll feel reborn!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Commuting in Hong Kong

As of today I have been officially living and working in Hong Kong for one month! Since my start here the weeks have been so busy that already this month passed before I realized it, so it is about time that I continue my blog here.

Since the beginning of September I have been a regular Hong Kong commuter on the MTR. MTR? ... Yes, sorry for outsiders I mean Metro. MTR stands for mass transport railway, and is the name of the company that services the metro in Hong Kong. However, the word MTR is so commonly used that it replaced the word metro, so don't be surprised that if you ask about the "metro", most people don't understand what you are talking about.

The MTR railway system is operational since 1979 and currently includes more than 200 km of railway with about 150 stations. It is one of the most popular ways of transportation, as it is fast, efficient and convenient. On the main lines during the day, a new train arrives every 2 minutes(!) so there is no need to rush down when you see a metro waiting. The next one is always coming very soon.

That the MTR is one of the most popular ways of transportation became clear to me as soon as my first working day when I had to travel to work. After leaving my apartment I walked down to the MTR which is about 5 minutes away. Going down the MTR I noticed that it was not so busy as I was expecting. Only 3 or 4 people waiting for every entrance door. However, when the train arrived and the doors opened, a shiver was going through my spine... Inside there were so many people that there was hardly room for all those people inside, let alone for the rest that was waiting outside on the platform to go in.

A usual picture during the rush hour
Hoping for better luck I decided to wait for the next train, but this one was not different from the first, so I decided to follow the rest of the HK locals and push myself in until there was only 1 cm between me and the door which (fortunately) closed without grabbing me. I told myself I had to survive at least 6 stops (the station I needed to exit for my work), and luckily I did.

After a few mornings I concluded that the trains were busy every day, so I accepted the idea that I had no choice but to feel like a sardine in a can. (the one you can buy in the supermarket).

I also discovered that there are some "metro-rules" when taking an MTR journey;

Be quiet and focus only on yourself or your smartphone.

Nobody talks here during the morning ride except when somebody is called on his cell-phone (which is rarely the case in the morning). Besides that most of the people are making not any interaction with others. 90% uses their smartphone to entertain himself by watching online TV or playing games. The other 10% is reading the newspaper.

Get experienced with the amount of millimeters between you and the door that is closing.

This requires some exercise with you being almost ripped to pieces, but in the end you will learn how much space you need so you are still able to enter a train that is already too full.

Know your movement gestures if you want to exit the train.

Do this while the train is nearing your station, by turning around your face towards the door, so the people around will notice that you want to get out. Usually this is enough and when the door opens they will make some little space for you to exit. If that doesn't work, use the word "sorry" or "mh'goi" (the Cantonese for thank you)

Nobody talks with each other.
Everyone is focused on him/herself
No matter if some old lady is standing, if you are lucky to get a seat, you won't give it to anybody.

In Holland it is usual practice to give up your seat to the elderly or impaired. "Please madam, take my seat". However, in Hong Kong I have not seen anybody doing this. They are ignoring whatever is around them, even if an old lady is struggling to stay on her feet in the train.

When you take the elevator, stand on the right if you are standing still. 

People will get annoyed when you are standing still on the left side as this side is for people that are in a hurry, so make sure you follow this rule to avoid angry faces behind you.

Make yourself accustomed with the best locations in the train, and practice to get there before anybody else can.

There are some area's in the train which are the most convenient when you commute in those busy trains. The area's near the door give you the convenience of the back wall to lean against, and makes it easy to exit during rush hour. These locations are well protected by people, and whenever one comes free, you should act within a second, otherwise it is already taken by someone that has senior experience over you with this exercise. Bummer!

Once you get accustomed to the rules, the ever busy trains and the individuality, the Hong Kong MTR system is very convenient. I don't want to trade in my 20 minute MTR ride with the one hour car drive I had in the Netherlands!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

House Hunting in Hong Kong

How to find a decent place to stay in this huge city??
After I celebrated my official stay in Hong Kong it was about time to look for a permanent place to live. So how to find a good apartment in Hong Kong?

I heard from my friends and colleagues that the housing market in Hong Kong is booming. During the past few years prices of real estate went up with yearly percentages of which we in Europe can only dream of right now.

For property owners this is a very good thing, however for the people that are looking to buy or rent an apartment, it is less good news.
At first I didn't really worry about the price. After all I am coming from Amsterdam, which to my opinion already is expensive enough for renting apartments.

I started my search online, as this is probably the most easiest way of investigating the available options and prices. There are many different sites in Hong Kong that act as an intermediate between property owners and possible tenants and most of them are also in English. After trying out several different sites I found out that Squarefoot was the most easiest to use for me, offering a wide variety of available properties.

As I am a new citizen, I prefer to stay on Hong Kong island, as it is the most convenient and closest to work. After browsing for a while, I noticed that the prices were higher than I expected, especially when looking at my preferred Hong Kong Island location: Wanchai. For an apartment on a lower floor, in an old building, not more than 45 square meters you already pay at least 10,000 till 15,000 Hong Kong Dollar excluding utilities such as Gas and Electricity. (About 1000-1500 euro)

It took me a couple of days of searching (and cursing haha) to accept the high prices, and finally I made some appointments to look at several apartments in Wanchai, all below my maximum budget which I put on 15,000 HKD. I expected that even though the apartments were small, at least I could find something decent... Wrong!

The size of an average apartment, not even 45 sq. meter..
this is the living room
The first 10 apartments I have seen were all extremely small, old, noisy and very dirty...

Especially dirty...

Most of them looked like someone lived there for 10 years without doing any maintenance or thorough cleaning.

Sometimes I was even afraid to touch something in the kitchen as my finger would get stuck in the grease.

Another apartment in Wanchai. Too small again
There were exceptions though. Some apartments were just refurbished, and had new decoration and furniture. However, with those I encountered another problem in the overheated Hong Kong property market. All the "reasonable" apartments were already rented out before I even had the chance to negotiate. Several agents told me that these apartments usually are rented out within a week or two.

After the initial dissapointments, I got myself together and started to expand my search. If Wanchai would not be possible, then a little further away from the center should be acceptable as well.

And after several more visits I finally found something acceptable. Just 4 metrostops away from Wanchai (where I work) I found an apartment that is in a quiet and green area, located on the 25th floor, with a mountain view, acceptable size (2 bedrooms even) and clean. The initial price was over my budget, but after some negotiation we came to an acceptable price, and I signed the initial agreement. (which was in both chinese as English fortunately)
Besides signing the contract, I also needed to pay a deposit of two months rent to the landlord, which you get back after the first year.  (Usual practice for Hong Kong)

I consider myself lucky to find an apartment in this condition. The current owner, a rich Chinese family, just bought a bigger apartment as their daughter returned from her study in the U.S.A. They wanted to rent out their existing apartment for at least a year or two and because it is their own personal property, they kept it in a much better shape than the usual landlord who only sees the apartment as an investment and doesn't care about anything. The woman of the family even offered me some extra equipment for free and gave me some spare light bulbs in case the current ones break down! (I had to smile when she offered me)

The only challenge in the future is that the landlord speaks only Mandarin, which means that both me, as my realestate agent cannot really communicate with her very well... I guess I have to start working on my Mandarin classes soon!

So, finally, after a couple of weeks full of frustrations, I finally found a very nice place to stay and I'm satisfied. Tomorrow I will get the key and will be able move in!

Friday, July 15, 2011

And finally.. the day has come!

Ever since the first day I came to Hong Kong several years ago, I've always had the dream to live in this fascinating city. 

As I've written before, in my current position as Global IT Manager, I am responsible for the worldwide IT operations and services of our company. As many of our corporate activities are currently focused in Asia, it is obvious that a great deal of my time is spent on projects in this part of the world.

My current relocation assignment was only for a few months, as I needed to manage several important IT Projects in our office. However, as time passed by during these months, I discovered that my wish to remain in Hong Kong only got stronger and stronger. Therefore I have requested my employer if it would be possible to be relocated permanently, as it would be beneficial for both the company (as most IT activities are based around Hong Kong) and myself, as I have the strong wish to stay here permanently.

Today, I am glad to announce that my employer has accepted my relocation request, and that I just have signed my new Hong Kong contract! This means that from september 1 officially I will be employed in Hong Kong, work in Hong Kong, and live in Hong Kong...  permanently!

As you understand, a permanent relocation is a big change compared to the few months I was planning to stay here initially. However, many of you know that I already had a long wish to move to Hong Kong, and now when it's finally happening, I am very glad to be able to realize this dream and start my new life here.

I will miss the view from my apartment in Amsterdam!
After celebrating this success (which will be done this weekend of course), I need to get back on track and arrange all the neccesary things for my relocation, such as finding an apartment in Hong Kong, get myself a bankaccount, and more.

Besides that, I have an apartment in Amsterdam which needs to be emptied, canceled, and all my personal belongings and administrations need to be taken care of, within the coming two months.

Even though it will be a busy time, I'm planning to post some updates on my relocation process. Hope you will find it interesting to read.

Last but not least, I want to thank my employer for making my relocation possible, and my friends and family for supporting me all the way.

To be continued!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tokyo after the Earthquake

View of the Shinjuku Area in Tokyo
March 11, 2011....

I Still remember this day, as probably many people do, as the day of the severe earthquake and following disastrous tsunami.

I remember I was working behind my computer when suddenly I got a Skype message from one of my Japanese colleagues.

He told me that shortly before a huge earthquake had taken place. Like many Japanese, he had experienced many earthquakes before, but he told me that this one was unlike any other.

The whole company office was shaking, shelves came off the wall, equipment fell down, and people were taking shelter where possible. The huge magnitude of 8.9 brought down the normally so earthquake-prepared city Tokyo "offline". Public transport didn't work and traffic lights were offline, resulting in huge traffic jams throughout the whole city. My colleague told me he was kind of stuck at the office, as it made no sense to try to get home by car. Eventually he walked back home, like half of the city's population was doing.

The earthquake also brought the devastating tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people, and destroyed the cooling system of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, resulting in unacceptable radiation exposure to the Japanese people.

Now, almost 4 months after the earthquake I am back in Tokyo again for my work, and I was wondering how this country and it's people are recovering from this major disaster.

On the surface everything looks fine. There is no real visible damage to buildings except some cracks here and there and business seems to go as usual. But when you take a closer look, you still can feel the impact that this huge earthquake and its related tsunami had on the people of Japan.

This sign you saw a lot near
elevators: Not in use due to electricity
First of all, Japan still faces electricity problems. I saw in the train that tepco (the electricity company) can only provide 79% of all energy needs. Therefore the government has urged everybody to save electricity.

There are suggestions to only turn on the airconditioning above 26 degrees, elevators and lifts are shut down and most of the (so typically Japanese) neon lights are shut off at night.

Besides that there are still fears about the ongoing disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactors and the radiation leakage. People are very cautious about the origin of food. I also noticed that all bottled water you can buy in the supermarkets is imported. No local sourced water is for sale, which I expect has to do with the fear of radiation.

Everywhere you see
commercials for water filters.
Perhaps people don't trust
unfiltered water anymore? 
The city feels much more quiet too. I have been in Tokyo several times, and it always felt as an active, vibrant and busy city. However this time, it feels like it is much more quiet. Even the hotel I was staying lowered it's price and lures guests with free gift coupons, while before it usually was always fully booked.

On the television you see a lot of programs about the tsunami and the recovery of Japan and it's people. Although I do not understand any Japanese, I can see that the whole country is working united to deal with rebuilding the nation after this disaster. Also when talking to most of the Japanese people, I can feel that they are determined to get their country back on track, and help the people that are in most need.

I admire their strength and attitude, and I wish all of them good luck in the recovery!
If you want, please donate to the Japanese red cross. They have an emergency relief fund which helps the ones in most need after the tsunami.

You can find the link here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Know where you are, and Know where you're going

Gloucester Road in HK
During one of my previous trips to China, an "interesting" story unfolded on a night out with my colleagues. I was visiting the city Shenzhen for a couple of days to manage a project that we were doing in our manufacturing facility there.

Shenzhen is a huge city located in the southern part of China, only an hour away from Hong Kong. In the late seventies of the previous century, Shenzhen was only a small village. In 2008 however, the official population was registered at a staggering number of 14 million. (And according to some, the unofficial number is significantly higher)

To celebrate the successful closure of our project, me and my colleagues decided to go out for dinner and drinks after work. We took a taxi to Shekou, which is a part of Shenzhen that is about an hour away from our facility in Futian. (Depending on traffic)

After spending half of the night in a restaurant, and the other half in a bar, we decided that it was time to end the night and go home. My hotel was located near our facility in Futian and because of the long distance between and Shekou and Futian, we decided that one of my colleagues would join me in the Taxi to explain the driver where to go.

Most of the Chinese taxi drivers do not speak any English, and even if you tell them the name of your hotel, they probably will not understand as most hotel names have both a Chinese name as an English name. The Sheraton for example translates (phonetically) to ShiLaiDong. (I don't know the real Chinese translation unfortunately)

However, it was a late night and we had a couple of drinks, and instead of joining me in the Taxi, my colleague told the Taxi driver which hotel I was staying (in Chinese), shut the door, waved me goodbye, and off I went....

"Well..", I thought ".. at least he knows where he should take me."

So I wasn't worrying too much, and enjoying my nightly ride through the city. After a while though, it appeared to me that I started to see the same buildings appear, and then another time, and another time. Apparently the taxi driver didn't know where to go and was driving through the city in circles hoping for me to tell him where to go.

I didn't have any street name or address with me, and also my Blackberry (which has google maps) didn't work in China, so that wasn't of much use either. Luckily I have been to Shenzhen before, and my visual memory never fails on me, so I (kind of) had a hunch where we should be going.

So with giving some suggestions with my hands and combined with English (which he didn't understand anyway) I pointed him where to go. "Yes yes, left here...right here". We didn't make it directly to the hotel, and we halfway got stuck into a very dark and scary neighbourhood where even the taxi driver didn't want to stop his car, but in the end I saw the 28 story Sheraton hotel rising up on the horizon and I pointed towards it, after which the Taxi driver and I smiled to each other.

"Finally we made it!"

When we reached the hotel, it appeared to me that I didn't have enough money to pay the taxi driver. I had some RMB (Chinese Yuan) money with me, but because of the long "sight-seeing" tour around the city, I was short of about 10 RMB from the total taxi fare. While looking through my wallet I found a 10 euro bill, and just gave it to him instead of the 10 RMB (which is about 1 euro).

He looked at the bill, and after a moment started to smile at me. He probably understood that he just earned his daily income by just one taxi ride. Anyway we had an interesting experience together and I didn't mind paying him this extra bit. All together he gave me a good sightseeing tour around the city!

So to make a long story short: Always know where you are, and where you are going to in China.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dining Etiquette

Going out for dinner is always a comfortable way to spend time with colleagues and friends in Hong Kong. As I live alone in Hong Kong, but don't like to eat alone, I try spend my dinners with friends, colleagues and business partners. During these dinners I carefully watched the table manners, as most of the etiquette are different than what we are used to in Europe.

Malaysian Cuisine
The dinner in Hong Kong is considered to be the highlight of the day and this moment should be spent efficiently as time is always running short in this busy city. And because of the limited time, food in restaurants is served within record times. Before you know, your order is already on the table, cooked or fried and ready to be eaten.

The great thing I like about dining in Asia is that all the food is there to be shared by everyone. Unlike in Europe, where you order your own dish that is supposed to be eaten all by yourself, in Hong Kong (and the greater Asian region) all the food is shared by everyone. Every person on the table looks at the menu, and will suggest something of their interest to the others.

When the food is served, it will be placed in the middle of the table and everyone is free to take a portion. Please take care that you don't use your own chopsticks to take the food, as not everyone appreciates this. Usually there are "shared" chopsticks on the table which you can use to take the food and put it on your plate. In most places you will get a bowl and a small plate. I have always been wondering whether there is a real difference in purpose, but most people use both the plate as the bowl for different purposes. (And yes, needless to say, usually they have no forks and knives, only chopsticks... so you should better get some practice!)

Chinese Hotpot
Tea is an important part of the dining procedure. In all restaurants you are served hot tea and I noticed that it has two different purposes. In some food canteens, I never see people actually drink the tea, but they use it to clean the chopsticks before eating. When I ask about this I usually get the reply that they are not sure whether the sticks are really clean so they take the benefit of the doubt and use the tea to clean it. In restaurants, the tea is usually for drinking, but if I want to be sure, I just wait and pay close attention to what my Asian friends are doing. You never pour tea into your own glass though. It is a common rule that you serve tea for the others, and wait until someone else fills your cup. When you are a guest however, there is no need for you to pour tea for the others.

Dining with your boss or another person that has a higher "rank" I noticed that you should pay attention to some basic rules. First of all, the person highest in rank, should sit at the position of the table that is as far away from the door as possible. The chair that is positioned the closest towards the door is for the person that pays the bill. Besides the location, always let him or her take a look at the menu first and choose some dishes. When the food is served, also wait for this person to either start first, or make a suggestion to start eating.

Having Lunch on the Street. Excellent Food!
Whenever I bring friends from Europe to a dinner in Hong Kong, I always tell them not to worry about anything. Although there are do's and dont's as I described above, the local people are very flexible. They understand that you are a foreigner, that using chopsticks can be difficult, and that you don't always know the rules.

So just relax, enjoy the company and furthermore, enjoy the excellent food that Asia has to offer!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Time to Work

Almost 3 weeks have passed since the day that I stepped foot in our office in Hong Kong and therefore it's about time that I start sharing some of my experiences of working here in this different environment.

Over the last 6 years I have been regularly visiting our Hong Kong office, but usually I stayed there only for a few days or at maximum two weeks. During those short visits I always had a warm welcome. Many times I was invited to attend (an excellent) "Dim Sum" lunch, or a Japanese dinner after work.
And even though I had these positive experiences before, I felt a sort of thrill running through my veins when stepping into the office on my first monday.

"Is it me who needs to adjust to the new environment, "
"or is it the new environment that needs to adjust to me as well?"

I discovered that I'm not the only one who needs to get acquainted by my new surroundings. Even though our Hong Kong office has frequent visitors from many regions of the world, having a "foreigner" from Europe at the office every day of the week who passes you in the hall, who needs to sit next to during lunch (and starts to talk in some language that appears to be English) can be a little bit uncomfortable.

In the first week I experienced that people found it difficult to just walk into my office and talk to me in person. I discovered that they would rather call my colleague in China to ask a work related question, than to walk in my office and communicate with me directly.

I happened to find out what was going on when I got several phone calls from my colleague, asking me questions on behalf of persons that were sitting not more than 20 meters away from me. Once I figured out what was actually going on I had to smile, but of course I can understand the situation. To break the ice I started to make contact with everyone, having just casual conversations, and I must say that little by little people start to talk to me spontaneously, once they get over that little communication boundary.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

It's all about food

Typical narrow Street in HK
When you walk around through the small streets of Hong Kong, you notice that it is all about food. Wherever you walk, you will find a restaurant, food market or local canteen probably 10 steps away from you. And you don't only see all those places, you also smell them. One thing that every foreigner remembers about Hong Kong will be the "interesting" mixture of flavours that you smell when walking through the city.

Especially in the small and crowded streets where locals go, you can't protect yourself against the smell of fried duck, cooked garlic, dried fish, durian, raw meat that is hanging in the sun for more than a day already and even more combinations of things you have not smelled before in your whole life. (I'm not talking about whether you've eaten it either).

What to eat tonight?
Beef? Pork? Duck?
The smell usually comes from small restaurants (also known as canteens) that probably are not bigger than 25 square meters, and (sometimes) look like old garages or tool shops but actually host a local kitchen now where you see fried duck hanging at the display, crab or fish still being (half) alive in small aquariums, or other (parts of) animals that either have been cooked or fried.

Inside you usually find a couple of small tables, plastic chairs or stools where you are supposed to sit. During lunch time (rush hour) those places are so full that the local kitchen boss (usually a bossy woman) points you to any seat that is available, even when there are other people (whom you don't know) sitting at the same table.

Choosing a menu in such a canteen is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't speak the language, as all menus and special offers are written in cantonese. Therefore it's probably wise to bring a local with you, otherwise you might end up with cooked pig-stomach on your plate.

When you enter such a place as a foreigner, the first thought you have is to get out as soon as possible. However, when you have tasted the food once or twice, you will understand why these places are so popular. The meals they offer there are delicious, and the prices are very low. You just have to accept that the "standards" are a little bit different than what you are used to in Europe.

Mmm... meat!
For example, some time ago I had an excellent lunch in a canteen that was famous for it's curry meals. I was enjoying a great meal, until something moving on the wall next to the kitchen caught my eye. It was a cockroach that was heading for the kitchen, probably driven by the same smell as what got me in to this place.

... I kept on eating thinking what a delicious meal it was!

As I said, you just have to accept that the "standards" are different than what we are used to in Europe. If you set that aside, you will enjoy the most delicious food you will find in Asia!

(by the way, I hope I do not offend anybody with the story above. I am trying to explain the difference from my dutch perspective.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Day 1 - Arrival

Finally.. after a 2 hour delay, a 12 hour flight and another hour of getting from the Hong Kong airport to the center of Wanchai, I arrived at my new (temporary) home.

View from my Window
My apartment is in the heart of the old part of Wanchai, in a (for Hong Kong experiences) fairly "quiet" street.

Luckily in back in the Netherlands I already lived in a fairly busy street, so I think I won't have a really big problem adjusting here to the 24 hour noise.

Even the trams I have back home appear to be passing here as well so I won't be missing them :-)

Normally when I work in HK I am staying in a hotel, but as I'm staying for a minimum of 3 months, my employer has arranged a serviced apartment.

I didn't really know what to expect from this apartment so I decided not to bring anything but clothes. I figured that whatever I need I can probably buy here, and it's probably even cheaper than in Holland :-)

So what do you do, when you notice that you are missing towels, toilet paper, household cleaning stuff, etcetera? Right... you go to:


Even my all time favourite was present :-)

Throughout the last 6 years I have been in HK at least a dozen times, and with every visit I try to get impressions of the city and the daily life of the HK citizen and compare them to the impressions I have from my previous visits.
The best way to start this is by doing a walk in the city, and as Ikea was several blocks away, I took the opportunity to look around on my way home.

During my stroll I discovered a lot of new wine shops that were not there before. They (for what I could see) are selling expensive imported wine from Europe and other regions. I knew wine was getting more popular in Asia, but I didn't expect so many new shops open in such a short time. I should do some research about that.

On my normal walking-route (to work) I also saw that at least two new Porche showrooms opened, and the Maserati dealer hang a new (Huge) sign on the building showing it's new imported model.
I guess business is still going great here, especially when you see the amount of expensive cars driving on the road. All brand new mercedes SLK's, BMW's, Porches, and everything in the most expensive configuration.

The last thing that struck me as the increased amount of pet shops. In almost every street you can find a pet-store that sells dog&cat food and gatgets. Are people getting more pets at home? I suspect a trend here.

I got 'home' again and now it's time to continue unpacking.
Tonight the first food and drinks are planned!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

One week left

And finally it's going to happen! Just one week left, and I'm moving...

The idea of moving to Asia already occupied my mind for about one and a half years. It started when I had a conversation with my boss about giving me the opportunity to work in this part of the world.
My current employer, a Medical Device company with a worldwide presence, has it's headquarters in Hong Kong, a modern manufacturing facility in Shenzhen, and several sales offices throughout Asia and Europe.

In my current position as Global IT Manager, I am responsible for the worldwide IT operations and services. As many of our corporate activities are currently focused in Asia, it is obvious that a great deal of my time is spent on projects in this part of the world, and during the last years I have been travelling back and forth to our offices in Hong Kong and Shenzhen but also to Japan and for example Malaysia.
Every time I visited Hong Kong, my mind was occupied with the thought of how it would be living in such a country. The culture and the atmosphere are so much different when compared to our Dutch, organized and safe way of living, that it is almost impossible to imagine unless you have been here actually and filled your lungs with the Asian air of life.

And so when my employer told me that they would give me the opportunity to move to Hong Kong for a couple of months, I was more than excited! I will be working on several projects in our Hong Kong office, but I also will be involved in activities in Shenzhen and other sites. The assignment will last at least 3 months.

Although most of you know I am a regular traveller, I have never lived outside the Netherlands for a long period. Therefore this opportunity will not only be interesting for me, it will also be a challenge. Will I thrive here in this totally different environment, or will I be longing to go home?

One thing is certain: It's going to be a great experience.

Therefore I've decided to write about my experience here in Asia. On this personal blog, I am planning not only to share my personal experience of moving here and deal with the every day life and work issues, but also to find the difference in culture, beliefs and ideas between Asia and Europe, the daily struggle of becoming succesful in this (much more than in Europe) competitive environment, and last but not least the economical situation in this part of the world based on my own impressions and discussions with local people.

It's the first time I am starting a blog, and when I read back above goals it seems a bit ambitious, but however, I'm giving it a try :-)

Please don't hesitate to give me feedback, everything is welcome!